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Captain Ahab had his whale. Stompbox developers, it seems, obsessively pursue the sounds and colors of vintage delays. It’s easy to fathom the obsession. Tape delays, oil can echoes, and bucket brigade devices embody everything that is wonderful about analog—deep, multi-hued tones and inexplicable wobbles and irregularities. Even though good digital modelers can nail a lot of these analog idiosyncrasies, duplicating analog intricacies at the affordable end of the spectrum is tough.
Thankfully, that hasn’t kept engineers from trying. And the TC Electronic gang has developed a new version of their Flashback X4 digital delay inspired by tough-to-model echoes from the Binson Echorec to the Watkins Copicat and Tel-Ray Deluxe Organ Tone.
Tripped-out Flashback Doppelganger
Though the Alter Ego is relatively large, you can’t argue with the elegant simplicity of the design. TC probably could have stuffed the same functionality into a pedal a third the size, but it would have been a lot less fun to use and less practical in real-world gigging situations. The many voices of the Alter Ego are derived from hip inspirations: two different Echorecs, two Echoplex models, a Ibanez DM-2, the TC Electronic 2290 (with a touch of modulation), a Watkins Copicat, Roland Space Echo, Electro-Harmonix Echoflanger, and more.
Each delay is shaped via a conventional control set: time, delay, and feedback. And the three controls take on very different characteristics, ranges, and personalities for each delay. Three of the four footswitches are dedicated to user-defined presets and looper operation. The fourth doubles as a tap tempo and undo switch.
Two notable omissions among the control set are rate and depth for modulation. Given that most Alter Ego settings feature some form of modulation, it would be nice to have intensity and speed controls. Doubtless this functionality would add to the price, but depending on the delay type, such knobs would contribute a lot of range and musicality.
Dotted-eighth and dual-delay settings give you percussive variants for the delays. Combined with the tap tempo function, they let you mate the device’s vintage voices with more modern playing styles and song structures. The easy-to-use looper also enhances the usability of the unit. With independent record and play footswitches, it’s refreshingly simple to operate.
Each Alter Ego delay has something cool to offer. Depending on your experience with originals, you’ll find some more or less authentic. But subtract perfect accuracy from the equation and the Alter Ego X4 is still very impressive.
The first Echorec voice (E REC 1) will be a big draw for Pink Floyd obsessives. It nails much of the original’s metallic, submarine liveliness—especially when you stack the repeats on heavy. But lacking the cool, murky darkness of the original, this delay also reveals its digital origins. The upside is that it sounds fantastic with fuzz or high-gain overdrive for Gilmour-in-an-arena lead tones—less authentic, perhaps, but probably more useable and forgiving.
The Deluxe Memory Man settings mostly nail the essence of the original, though you hear trace digital artifacts in the slightly too-clean repeats, and you’re stuck with a fixed intensity for the vibrato and chorus.
The rare, oddball “oil-can” Tel-Ray Organ Tone inspired the X4’s graphics as well as one of the device’s most delightful settings: With an intense, Leslie-in-a-Bathysphere wobble that’s deep and full of character, the TR Organ voice sounds amazing for languid psychedelic chords and warped jazz comping.
The Ibanez-inspired BDM2 setting is perfect for subtle textures, and allocating a preset to this voice is a great way to get out of trouble if more radical presets let you down. A more ambitious undertaking is the Watkins Copicat. Replicating the original’s multi-head tape echo irregularities would be tough for the most advanced digital modelers. But TC does a great job of replicating the dense wash of a multi-head setting and it sounds great at heavy feedback levels.The Verdict
The Alter Ego X4 is a superb digital delay, a ton of fun, and a fantastic tool for gigging guitarists. Some of the best voices have a perceptible digital-around-the-edges color in the repeats. But replicating so many oddball delays for $269 is a tall order, and wasting processing power on arcane analog quirks at the expense of functional facsimiles is a fool’s pursuit. TC Electronic deserves praise for tastefully balancing ambition and restraint. And given how many textures are on tap and the easy-to-use presets and looper, the Alter Ego X4 Vintage Echo is likely to reward your investment many times over.
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